The “Right to Disconnect” – Companies, Governments Try to Tackle Working Time in COVID Era

December 02, 2020

For better or worse, global companies now operate in an “always connected” society with a thoroughly blurred line between work and home life.  With the rapid shift to remote work due to the COVID pandemic, the European Union recently introduced legislation to address the new remote work paradigm – with more government action expected to follow.
EU Introduces “Right to Disconnect” Legislation.  Spurred by COVID remote work shift, the EU’s proposal would require employers to “implement the right to disconnect in a fair, lawful and transparent manner,” and “record individual working times in an objective, reliable and accessible way.”  The objective of the legislation is to create more clarity as to boundaries between work and home life as many Europeans find themselves working remotely.

Working Time Legislation Is Not New…But Does It Really Work?  Many global governments have implemented some form of working-time mandates.  Unfortunately, these mandates have not translated very well into an effective “right to disconnect” for the COVID remote work era.  For example, in France, the El Khomri Law provides the right to disconnect without defining it.  The nature of “right to disconnect” is left to a negotiation between employer and employees.  Similar legislation has been introduced in other jurisdictions, including Belgium, Canada, India, the Philippines, Portugal, and New York City.

These working time legislation examples, however, are typically “one-sized fits all”.  However, employee categories and jobs are not.  As a result, the effectiveness and enforcement of these legislative scheme are questionable at best.  
Global Working Time in the COVID-19 Era:  Working time was a lot easier when the office was the central place for work.  The inherent separation of the office and the home provided a workable system on which to track employee time recording to avoid overworking employees and unpaid overtime hours.  The EU’s proposal is simply the latest attempt at addressing this problem.

For many CHROs and global HR Professionals, the COVID-19 pandemic has removed this natural separation and tracking employee working time has become a legitimate challenge.  Developing and Maintaining a flexible global working time policy outline which can be adapted for local requirements is certainly advisable.

For example, Allied Irish Banks in Ireland introduced its own 'right to disconnect’ policy, which encourages employees not to send or check emails outside of normal working hours.  In Japan, companies track all employees’ working hours, including those who hold managerial or supervisory positions.  Working-hour records must be reviewed monthly to assess whether an employee’s working time has exceeded the limits.  Some employers also adopt a work-interval system to protect the health and welfare of employees.  The system sets a minimum limit on the interval of time between the end of one workday and the beginning of the next.  Those practices have been well-received by employees and has to some extent mitigated the overworking issue in Japan.

Outlook:  Legislation can provide a general framework for how to approach the “right to disconnect” and HR Policy Global expects more governments to contemplate related legislation.  However, a clearly defined company policy on working time offers more flexibility to address the individual employees’ changing needs.  Furthermore, cultivating a company culture of listening to and caring for the employees is increasingly crucial to ensuring their work/life balances, safeguarding their personal time, and underpinning their right to privacy.